Within the last decade, concern about environment and development have become a central feature of development ideologies and debates in the Third World. Working towards sustainable development is no longer an exclusive prerogative of the government but is emerging as a front-line issue involving the civil society. People and nations are beginning to realise that the current paths of development centred around the western paradigms are not always sustainable and there is a need to play a more pro-active role in the development process. Information and communication technologies have an important role to play in the process of achieving sustainable development and this need forms the genesis of the Sustainable Development Networking Programme.
At the eve of the new millennium, people living in developing countries face unprecedented challenges concerning sustainable development brought on by the changing global economy, political changes, environmental degradation and demographic pressures. The task of making sustainable development operational through processes that meet the basic needs of the community while protecting the environment and empowering the poor is daunting. People-oriented development can realise its full potential only when communities, the planners, the policy-makers and the civil society are involved and motivated, and there is a constant sharing of knowledge. The growing gap between the world’s have and have-nots is today more appropriately reflected in the gap between people with access to information and those without.
The Brundtland Report (1987) emphasises upon early access to and deliberate sharing of information and expertise between all nations and actors as a key component to ensuring a sustainable future for the planet. Today, information and knowledge have become a factor sui generis in the societal and economic development. To deal with the diverse challenges in achieving sustainable development, and to effectively bridge the knowledge gap - improved information and communication technologies (ICT) have a significant role to play. As generic technologies, they permeate and cut across all social institutions, perceptions and thought processes.
Knowledge- based Networking
Access to information is essential and is de-facto the first step towards making an informed decision at any level. Information and communication technologies rest on the strong belief that communities have knowledge and expertise which need to be synergized with the existing information, in the context of decision-making and initiating judicious action for sustainable and equitable development. Information, however, becomes knowledge only when it helps people to communicate and participate, and enables them to make informed choices - paving the way for a knowledge based networking.
Networking for knowledge-sharing caters to the global thirst for information, builds up awareness among the change agents or those who can exert external pressure, and encourages informed and active participation of communities and individuals. Knowledge based networking strengthens the inherent link between information access, democracy, human rights, environmental protection and sustainable development by providing useful information for problem-solving, for enhancing community participation, for better organisation of developmental interventions and for improving the relationships between the various stakeholders in development. Further, it breaks the boundary, which confines the availability of information to a few. Knowledge-based networking for influencing decision-making provides strength to the democracy as it enables the decision-making mechanism to perpetuate right below till the roots of the society. Alternative mechanisms to carry out these tasks would take a lot more time, resources and efforts
Genesis of Sustainable Development Networking Programme
How are countries going to participate in the task of attaining sustainable development when basic information on the condition of the world’s environment and natural resources is out of reach of the many? How can a consensus be built up and be used as a tool for influencing decision-making when civil society does not have access to essential information. In a world where 80% of the world population has no access to reliable telecommunications, and one third has no access to electricity (Panos 1998), it is implicit that information and communication technologies by itself may not penetrate to all the strata of the society.
The onus lies on the intermediary institutions to provide the crucial link between information and its users, and encourage nations to invest in information and communication technologies’ infrastructure so that they can reap the expected social and economic benefits. Often, information is available on issues concerning sustainable development but access to such conventional and non-conventional information is limited due to the lack of organisation of information services which can give an appropriate and timely support. With the future pointing towards accelerating the spread of information and communications technologies, the management of knowledge encompassing the function of information collection, compilation, organising and dissemination assumes significance and this forms the genesis of Sustainable Development Networking Programme (SDNP).
Origin and Objectives
The genesis of Sustainable Development Networks (SDN) was in 1992 - a reference was made to the UNCED Conference and the universal conclusion that a critical element in attaining sustainable development was the implementation of Agenda 21. The governments agreed to avoid past failures in reconciling economic growth and sustainable development by deliberately engaging all sectors of the civil society in the development planning processes. Providing access to information so that all stakeholders could be empowered to participate more actively and constructively in the dialogue was a critical issue that the SDN was intended to address.
The principle objective of SDN was envisaged as facilitating and promoting connectivity between the users and suppliers of information of direct relevance to sustainable development, and in particular with the purpose of supporting the preparation and implementation of Agenda 21. The UNDP Capacity 21 programme addresses this need by encouraging developing countries to devote human and organisational resources to sustainable development efforts. An autonomous initiative, SDNP enhances the Capacity 21 programme by enabling developing countries to share vital information and expertise. SDNP has already linked together government organisations, the private sector, universities, non-governmental organisations and individuals in over 90 countries spread over Asia, Africa and Latin America through electronic and other networking vehicles for the express purpose of exchanging critical information on sustainable development. The broad benefits of SDN are increased efficiency in the use of development resources, less duplication of activities, reduced communication costs and global access to information and human resources.
Sustainable Development Networking Programme: India
In India, striving for sustainable development calls for a dynamic balance between actions and policies which promote sustainable livelihoods, human development and better management of the natural and physical environment. The success lies in an effective and responsive governance, and an empowered civil society which acts as a watchdog on issues concerning sustainable development at local and global levels. Access to information and its strategic use holds the key to achieve both these conditions.
Sustainable Development Networking Programme, India (SDNP-I) exists to facilitate the process of sustainable development by disseminating solutions, promoting good practices and strengthening democratic practices through a mechanism of information exchange between NGOs, government and research organisations, business establishments and the civil society at large.
SDNP-I aims to emerge as a one-stop access point for information and resources on a gamut of issues ranging from agriculture to health to climatic changes and third world debt. It provides a platform for fostering debates and discussions, and highlighting developmental issues and advocating concerned environmental actions at all levels. The programme is jointly funded by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada while the project is being hosted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (India).
In this context, the role which emerges of Sustainable Development Networking Programme, India (SDNP-I) goes beyond simply linking sources and users of information on sustainable development. The niche areas envisioned for SDNP India are three-fold:
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·SDNP-I as a centralised, exhaustive electronic repository of information on issues, events, government policies, resource organisations and resource people related to sustainable development.
·SDNP-I as an active mechanism for communication, coordination and networking among NGOs, community groups, business enterprises, academic and research institutions, and government bodies on issues relating to sustainable development.
·SDNP-I as a multi-form, pro-active, value-driven force which continuously monitors policies and events, and facilitates partner organisations, collaborative networks and resource persons in advocacy of policy-level changes to create a conducive environment that promotes sustainable development.
SDNP-I can effectively perform these roles because of the functional advantage it enjoys in terms of:
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·Strong knowledge based networking with partner nodes, environmental information centres and other parallel organisations, and their active support in generation, collation and value-addition of information on diverse issues concerning sustainable development.
·Timely access to updated, reliable information through the multi-media, partner nodes, resource organisations, resource people, collaborative networks and in-house research, and its operation in an environment unconstrained by the bureaucratic straitjacket of more formal institutions.
·Support and guidance of caucus of resource people, subject experts and representatives of client groups who would be strategically involved with the functioning of SDNP-I.
·Strong goodwill value enjoyed by SDNP-I in the development sector because of its ability to promptly disseminate reliable and unbiased information and its active involvement in issues concerning sustainable development.
Services provided by SDNP-I
SDNP (India) possesses the state-of-art information and communication technologies which include HP 9000 servers, dedicated internet connectivity, Pentium II computers, Multimedia equipment, scanners and digital cameras. Extensive use of these technologies is made in the everyday functioning of the SDNP-I. The services currently provided by Sustainable Development Networking Programme (India) to users worldwide are:
Gateway to Information on Sustainable Development
SDNP -I has created a portal website which is extensively cross-referenced with other resources on the internet on a gamut of subject areas relating to sustainable development. The website http://sdnp.delhi.nic.in hosted from the web-server at SDNP India Hub is an information highway which provides news updates on latest sustainable development relating events, insights on national and international debates, changes in government policies and access to on-line databases, publications, news-clippings and e-mail discussion groups. Each of the subject section has relevant information in the Indian and international context. Subject specific databases, search engines, links to worldwide web libraries and other sources of information have been added into each of these sections to facilitate availability of exhaustive information to the users. A database of national and international organisations working in the development sector is being maintained on the website and has been classified according to the subject areas. The links section in the SDNP-I website provides links to the websites of other developmental organisations working on diverse issues.
The subject areas currently covered in the portal website are agriculture, bio-diversity, biotechnology, forestry, energy, marine ecosystem, climate change, pollution, waste management, water resources, employment, environmental education, gender in development, trade, health and human resources. The list is exhaustive and addition of many more sections is a continuous task. A mirror site of the website exists at http://members.tripod.com/sdnp_india
Building Bridges Service (BBS)
Building Bridges is an initiative of SDNP-I to keep track of some of the contemporary issues concerning sustainable development. Building bridges is more than a sustainable development monitor and aims to foster greater linkages between communities and support groups. To get the latest updates on development news, upcoming events and development opportunities, users may subscribe to the Building Bridges service of SDNP-I by sending an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. At present this service is being accessed by users in over 35 countries.
Query Desk Service (QDS)
Query Desk is a customised service of SDNP-I to serve individuals and development organisations worldwide in their efforts towards sustainable development by answering their specific queries on subject areas on which SDNP-I holds information. SDNP-I makes use of its in-house resources and the support of partner organisations and the Environmental Information Services (ENVIS) focal point to provide answer to the queries posed. ENVIS is a network of organisations, funded by Ministry of Environment and Forests (India), working on 25 specialised issues concerning to the environment.
Event Reporting Service (ERS)
SDNP-I has initiated, for hire reporting service, "Development Watch" for events pertaining to the environment and sustainable development, such as conferences, workshops, symposia or regional meetings. SDNP-I would highlight the outcomes of these important initiatives and make them widely available through professional, objective and immediate coverage as well as dissemination of reports to both conference participants and target groups worldwide through electronic mails and via the SDNP-I portal website.
Dev-Online is a pioneering concept to let organisations and individuals put research papers, publications, conference proceedings, databases, etc, on-line on the SDNP website. The material to be hosted can be sent over the e-mail, fax or through postal mail. Once it is hosted it can be accessed by anyone from anywhere in the world.
Web-Space to Developmental Organisations and Networks
SDNP-I, in its endeavour to create an information highway on developmental issues, provides a web-space on its servers to give a catalytic start to organisations and networks working in the area of sustainable development to have their own websites for a wider presence in the development arena. Technical help and expertise on content development and website management is provided as a part of this package.
Training on Information and Communication Technologies
SDNP-I provides training to government, non-government, research and academic organisations on harnessing the potential of Information and Communication Technologies to take forward issues concerning sustainable development at a more macro level. This includes training on setting up communication infrastructure and protocols, efficient sourcing and handling of information and creating interactive processes to enrich the information content.
Ultimately, information and communication technologies by itself cannot be an answer and elixir to problems facing sustainable development. SDNP-I, through its functioning, can effectively facilitate knowledge-based networking but the degree to which people in developing countries can benefit from the networking potential to spread knowledge, bring about good governance and lead to sustainable development will depend on how much support the information-poor get to have access to the networking process and the strength of the complimentary human network.
1 The author of the paper is working as Programme Officer in Sustainable Development Networking Programme (India)